March 13, 2014

'I felt guilty, I still feel guilty'

As he prepares to make his return to Warwickshire, four months after flying home from the Ashes, Jonathan Trott speaks openly and candidly to ESPNcricinfo about the emotional challenges he has faced up to

It should have been a special occasion. The Ashes match in Adelaide should have been Jonathan Trott's 50th Test. His father was flying out from England to watch it. His uncle was flying from South Africa. His mother was already there.

But Trott didn't make it to Adelaide. Instead he took a decision that he thought, at the time, would end his career. He went home.

Now, four months later, he is prepared to reflect upon what went wrong and his preparations to return to the game that has been his life since the age of three.

If that sounds like an exaggeration then it is important to understand what has driven Trott since the start. The son of a cricket coach and the half-brother of a professional cricketer, Trott was always going to follow in their footsteps. Every weekend he can remember, he was at the cricket club watching one or other of them play, he was playing on the outfield, he was dreaming of his future. Cricket was his life.

And that has been part of the problem. Because when other England players took three weeks off at the end of the summer of 2013, Trott returned to the nets. Knowing that he had failed, by his high standards, in the Ashes in England, he challenged himself to dig deeper, work harder and be better. "I batted for two-and-a-half hours every morning," he says now. "I trained rigorously." In all, he allowed himself just four days off. He was an exhausted man pushing himself to the brink.

The warning signs had been there for some time. Months earlier, emotionally drained by the effort and eventual disappointment of reaching the Champions Trophy final on his home ground at Edgbaston, Trott started to struggle to retain that legendary concentration that had, for a time, earned him both a Test and ODI average in excess of 50.

Batting had started to feel exhausting. The effort of reaching 40 had become, in his words, "the same as it used to feel when I reached 100." By the time the Ashes reached Durham, he knew he was in trouble.

"I was caught at short-leg off Nathan Lyon in the first innings and, as I walked off, I remember thinking, I didn't even see the ball," he says. "I wasn't watching it. I was so tired, I couldn't think, I couldn't concentrate and I couldn't bat. It was as if my processing speed was slower."

To put that in perspective, Trott was on 49 at the time. Indeed, he reached 40 five times in that series but, whereas he would usually convert one or two of those platforms into centuries, now he was falling in uncharacteristically loose ways.

"It began to seem impossible," he says. "I had set myself this unrealistic scale of success and I was beating myself up trying to live up to it.

"The more people said 'Oh, you'll be great against Australia' the worse it was. I averaged 90 against them so, in my head, I needed to score 180 runs a game to sustain that. And that meant, if I made 100, I was still left thinking, 'Oh no, I need to score another 80 in the second innings just to break even.' I had set myself unsustainable standards.

I couldn't think. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't stand still or watch the ball. Everything I had practised went out of the window

"I chopped-on in the first innings at Trent Bridge and then was given out incorrectly in the second. And, all of a sudden, I was questioning myself. I was going into games anxious. I wasn't as patient as I had been in the past. I was chasing the game a bit; looking for shots that maybe weren't there. I was putting myself under pressure and getting a bit desperate."

England had been on a long run of games, too. The away series against New Zealand merged into a home series against New Zealand. The Champions Trophy merged into the Ashes. And with the Ashes series being held back to back, the entire team knew there would be no respite.

"The Ashes was joyless," he says. "Even when we won, the sense was we were just at half-time. We had put so much into the Champions Trophy and to lose the final from the position that we were in was a huge setback. And then the knowledge that we had 10 Ashes Tests in succession… it just seemed it would never end."

Kevin Pietersen was the first to notice a problem. As early as the Old Trafford Test, he urged Trott to push himself less and try to relax. The England management, also sensing a problem, offered him the chance to be rested from the ODI series at the end of the summer. "But I didn't think I deserved a rest," Trott says now. "My answer has always been to work harder. I can see that was a mistake now."

This was not completely uncharted territory. In 2007, struggling in a grim run of form, he pushed himself into more net sessions. While the rest of the team would arrive at the ground at 9am, he would sometimes arrive two hours earlier, looking for someone to feed the bowling machine. His form fell away completely. It was not until the end of the season and a holiday in the US that he began to relax.

Then again, at the end of 2008, he pulled out of a Lions tour. He had always pushed himself hard. That work ethic is what helped make him the ICC's player of the year in 2011. It's what helped earn him the highest batting average of any man to play more than 20 ODIs for England. It's what helped England to No.1 in the Test and ODI rankings. It is his great strength and his greatest weakness.

This time, though, the situation was compounded by a series of off-field challenges: a family bereavement - Trott was actually present when his wife's grandmother died quite suddenly - some complications in building and then moving into a new home and a row with a high-maintenance member of his extended family. While none of these issues were the cause of his problems on their own, they amounted to make even the smallest obstacle appear insurmountable. A similar catalogue of issues accumulated before the Johannesburg Test of 2010.

And then there was Mitchell Johnson. Trott laughs at the suggestion that he was in some way intimidated by Johnson's pace - "have you not watched my career?" he says, pointing out his record against Johnson and others. "The quickest pitches I've played on were in the ODI series after the 2010-11 Ashes and they had an attack featuring Johnson, Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Doug Bollinger. And I averaged about 100." - but he does admit to struggling against him.

"He's a very good bowler," he says. "You've seen lots of batsmen struggle against him.

"In normal circumstances I would have been fine. I'm not saying I would have scored lots of runs, but I'd have gone out there with confidence.

"But I couldn't think. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't stand still or watch the ball. Everything I had practised went out of the window. In those circumstances, any problem you have with your technique - and when I'm out of form I tend to fall over to the off side - is magnified and you saw me walking towards him, stepping across my stumps and trying to hit everything into the leg side. It wasn't that I was scared or anything, it was just the result of a cluttered mind. It would have been the same against any bowler."

Does it bother him that some people think he was frightened of Johnson?

"Do they?" he asks. "Well, they can't know much about cricket. But yes, I know that after this, I'll never convince everyone. Some will think I was frightened, some will think I'm mad. People believe want they want to believe. All I can do is tell the truth and allow people to make up their own minds. But I know this will never go away now."

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"Will someone listen to me?" Trott pleaded in the dressing room in Brisbane. He had tried to ask for help. And now he knew he needed it. He was tired of people looking the other way. He was tired of people telling him 'It will be alright.' He was tired of people saying 'You'll score some runs tomorrow.'

He knew none of that was true. He knew he had a problem. He had known for some time.

His head was pounding. His chest was tight. He hadn't been able to sleep. He felt he could barely breathe. His mind was racing; everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Trott is effusive in praise of Andy Flower in those hours and days when he was at his most vulnerable. Flower, he says, was immensely sympathetic. He gave Trott the choice of staying in the side, staying on the tour but missing the next game, having his family join him immediately or going home. His voice broke with emotion when he informed the team of Trott's decision moments after the conclusion of the Brisbane Test.

That, according to Trott, was the worst moment.

"Andy was clearly very upset," he said. "His voice broke as he told the team the news. Then I think it was Stuart Broad came and gave me a hug. I think all the guys did. They couldn't have been more supportive. Most of them had no idea what was going on.

"At the time, I thought that was the end. I thought I'd never play for England again. I thought I'd never play for Warwickshire again. I thought I was walking away from everything I had ever worked towards."

His emotions were conflicted. Relief flowed through him. But at the same time, he felt he was letting down his team-mates. The team-mates with whom he had travelled for four years and witnessed some of the best times in the history of England cricket.

"I felt guilty," he said. "I still feel guilty.

"I was there for the good times. I should have been there for the hard times. I hated seeing what they went through in Australia. At my best, I know I could have made a difference. But even below my best, I felt I should be there to share the experience. We've shared a lot together.

"Look, I could have played that 50th Test. But I felt I wasn't in a state where I could give 100% and I didn't want to let anyone down. I tried to do the right thing.

"I knew I had to go home. I had to get cricket off the agenda. I had to be in a place where it wasn't relevant; where I wasn't thinking about the next game. I was no use to them in that state. But I still feel guilty.

"Telling my dad was terrible. He has been there all the way through. He instilled my love for the game. He taught me to bat. He has supported me every step…" his voices trails away. "Yeah, maybe that was the worst bit."

Within 36 hours he was home. Flooded with relief, he slept all the way. As he walked through the front door of his new home, his three-year-old daughter Lily asked her mum "Is Daddy going to stay the night?"

We ask an awful lot of our cricketers.

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Back in Birmingham, a woman approaches Trott in a supermarket.

"I know what you're going through," she says, sympathetically. "I'm going through Waitrose," Trott replies.

Trott's life has changed since he came home from Australia. Where once he was viewed as something of a machine - the ice-cool accumulator of runs and records - now he is seen more sympathetically. He is seen for the man he is: as vulnerable and flawed as the rest of us.

But he cannot be the new poster-boy for depression. Much as people seem to want to carve out that niche for him, he cannot do it. He has not suffered with it. Nor can he talk with great knowledge about mental health issues. He has no more experience of them than anyone else.

Had he pursued any other career - had he been a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker - Trott would have been signed-off by his doctor for three weeks and then returned to work refreshed. His has been a classic case of burn-out. No more, but no less.

But it's different for a professional sportsman. A player cannot be seen to pick and choose his games. He cannot walk away and expect to come back as if nothing happened. And, for all the talk of the ECB understanding such issues much better these days, they are still groping in the dark.

Many other players have been in touch to share their own experiences of burnout. Some of the best-known names in cricket, renowned for their resilience and toughness, have suffered similar episodes, though most have managed to do so in less high-profile circumstances.

While the paparazzi have been found lurking in the bushes outside his home and the nursery school where he drops off his daughter, the ECB have given Trott space since he returned home. No doubt with the best of intentions, they have left him alone to recover away from expectation or pressure.

Whether that is the best policy is debatable. While Trott clearly needed the break, he also needs to know there is a way back. That he will not be punished for his actions. He needs to know that, for all the talk of compassion and understanding, this episode is not going to be held against him. The way some talk about him suggests they have very little knowledge of the situation.

Certainly he looks a new man now. He looks younger, happier and more relaxed. He laughs at the suggestion he should have entered the IPL auction just to watch the reaction from the media, he laughs at the suggestion he should have travelled to the Caribbean to watch the limited-overs matches from the grass banks with a rum in his hand, he laughs at the image people seem to have of him as a raving loon. He laughs a lot.

The hunger for the game has crept back, too. As early as January, the distinctive sound of bats being knocked in could be heard around his Harborne home. He will return for Warwickshire at the start of April and hopes that, if he scores runs in the first month of the season, he will be considered for selection on merit ahead of the ODI against Scotland in Aberdeen on May 9. He has not been replaced: England have barely averaged 10 from the No. 3 position in ODIs since his departure.

"This is the longest I've ever gone without picking up a bat," he says. "I mean the longest since I was about three years old. I've been four months without cricket and it's been fine.

"I'm annoyed I let myself get into that state. I should have recognised the signs and taken a step back much earlier. It just didn't cross my mind.

"I will never let myself get like that again. I know better now and I am surrounded by people who know better, too.

"Of course I want to play for England again. But it would be silly to look too far ahead. If I do make it back, I will just take it one series at a time and one tour at a time. I'll get the balance right between rest and preparation and I'll try and enjoy it.

"That's been the best thing to come out of this, really. Cricket meant so much to me. Too much. But now I know there is life outside cricket. I know that, when the time comes for me to stop playing, it will be fine. Cricket is important but it became too important. My perspective is better now. Family and health is much more important."

*Jonathan Trott declined several offers of payment for his first interview since returning from Australia and chose to speak to ESPNcricinfo for free.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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